'Dangling carrot': Experts concerned hole in state gambling help program triggers more play

FOX 43
'Dangling carrot': Experts concerned hole in state gambling help program triggers more play

Experts are highlighting a possible hole in a state gambling program that's intended to prevent those in recovery from causing themselves further harm.

YORK, Pa. — A growing number of Pennsylvanians are betting online, with the state recording record gambling revenue in 2022.

As online sports betting becomes more popular, Josh Ercole from the Council on Compulsive Gambling of Pennsylvania says more bettors are setting limits on the sites they use.

"Last I heard, we were somewhere in the 85,000 range in Pennsylvania, 85,000 online gambling account holders have implemented at least one of these self-imposed limits," Ercole said.

While this is a powerful tool for many people, individuals who are struggling with compulsive gambling have other options that can keep them away from gaming altogether. 

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board has offered a voluntary self-exclusion program for in-person betting since casinos were first legalized in 2006.

It's a program that's proven effective for many, taking that temptation away.

"Basically, what that allowed for folks to do would be to voluntarily and confidentially ban themselves from any casino across the state," Ercole said.

"The self-exclusion helps them take it off the table. People say 'I'm so glad. I thought about gambling the other night, but I knew that I couldn't,'" added Loretta Vasso, a gambling counselor with Alliance Counseling Services.

"I do not need to do another thing and I will remain on that program for as long as I live," Ercole said. "I would need to request to have my name removed after the one-year or five-year term and I would go through a hearing process.

When online betting was legalized in 2018, the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board established another self-exclusion program, as Kevin Kile, director of sports wagering operations, explains. 

"If a patron feels that they should not be gambling or they can't gamble within their limits, they can opt-in to self-exclude themselves from every online sports wagering site for a certain period to time, be it one year, five years or a lifetime ban," Kile said.

There is a key difference between the online and in-person programs. 

If a person chooses the one year or five year online self-exclusion, they are automatically taken off the list at the end of that period, unless they renew. 

It allows them to resume betting right away, potentially undoing all their progress.

"I've been through counseling, I've been going to meetings, I'm working the steps. I'm in a good place right now. The last thing I need is to be reminded of something I need to do," Ercole said. "I don't know why that decision was ultimately made, but as you can imagine, it's something that I don't necessarily think was the best approach."

FOX43 posed the question to the Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board.

A gaming control board representative sent this response, saying in part:

"Casino self-exclusion has always required the individual to request a removal and for the circumstances of their request to be looked at by staff and Board. Since casino gaming is an in-person form of gambling, we believe it’s important to put the onus on the individuals who want out of the program to take that active step. Since this is a program that is 15 years old and very successful, the thought was to not change that.

In kind, the other programs were new, and we believed it was a good opportunity to start fresh on how removals occur and instead have individuals re-enroll or extend their self-exclusion every year or for five years."

Still, Ercole believes the policy could be triggering for some.

"It's sort of like creating this dangling carrot that the potential for a problem, we feel, is just a little bit greater than it needs to be," Ercole said.

Program differences aside, Gambling Counselor Loretta Vasso said it's up to the individual to decide if they want to recover or not. 

She suggests anyone wanting to escape compulsive gambling for good, should only choose a permanent ban.

"If you really want to stop gambling because you recognize that it's destroying your life, then there is no end," she said. "Why wouldn't you self-exclude for a lifetime? Are you planning on going back?"

The Pennsylvania Gaming Control Board said casino gambling is an in-person form of gambling, and it believes it's important to require individuals who want to be removed from the exclusion program to take steps to prove they're ready.

Meanwhile, the experts FOX43 spoke to point out, with online gambling there's no physical barrier, making it easier for people with a gambling addiction to start playing again, the moment they're taken off the list.

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